Comfort while biking is important, and most of us start with the seat. One of the most common purchases among newbies comes in the form of bike seat covers and cushions, usually made of some kind of gel. They can be a bit expensive, so you’ve probably got a few questions before you plonk down your dollars.
Are bike seat covers/cushions any good?
Gel seats and other comfort cushions are really only good for casual riders who ride short distances. They can also be a stop-gap for beginners who haven’t developed the muscle and posture for riding properly. If you’re serious about cycling as a hobby they’re not worth it, and a better seat is the way to go.
That said, you probably want to know how they compare to the alternatives. So, let’s dig into the following.
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Do Bike Seat Covers Work? (Are They Comfortable?)
Bike seat covers can make a bike seat more comfortable, that is true. The problem comes from the fact that they’re prone to slipping, they don’t actually provide support, and the gel will displace over time.
Most of these cushions and covers tie on, and they often do it poorly. The ones which stretch over a sear can be a bit better, but it doesn’t solve the problem of gel displacement. The ones which tie on with laces are the worst, but all of them will move around.
That movement makes them unsuitable for any rougher riding, where a slip at the wrong time can cause a crash.
The worst part about the gel displacement is that it will move the gel away from the pressure points. In other words, your cushion degrades over time, exactly in the places where you need it most.
That said, casual riders and short commuters have different needs than cycling enthusiasts. If you’re never taking your bike over five miles in a given stretch, they’re usually cheaper than replacing your whole seat.
In most cases, a bike seat cover is just a band-aid to cover up a problem. The problem is often an ill-fitting saddle, and it may not make sense to replace it if the bike is never used for longer rides. Cushions also provide a decent stop-gap if you have a horrible stock saddle on your bike and you can’t afford to replace it just yet.
As a whole, seat cushions can be of benefit to newbies and casual riders, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. Anyone who wants to ride regularly, or for long distances, should go for an alternative like replacing the saddle or padded bike shorts.
So, to recap, here’s when seat covers may or may not make sense for you:
When Seat Covers Make Sense:
- All your rides are shorter, mainly to the store or work, and never more than 5 miles.
- You’re brand new to biking, and want a short-term “band-aid”.
- You have a very uncomfortable seat and you can’t afford to replace it.
When Seat Covers Don’t Make Sense
- You ride longer distances (i.e. over 5 miles at a time) or you ride frequently
- If you do mountain biking of any kind. The fact that most covers inevitably slip around is a lot worse when you’re on rough terrain.
- If you’re serious about cycling as a hobby or sport. In that case, it’s better to get a quality seat that will fit your body well without a cover
Types of Bike Seat Covers
There are a couple of different cover types available. If you’re still interested in one, you should take note of which type you’re looking at.
Gel-type seat covers are usually filled with some kind of silicone gel, although there are a few different types of material.
The gel is comfortable to sit on, at least for short rides. It’s not very durable, especially in covers where the gel can move inside the cushion. On longer rides it can move quite a bit, making it a poor choice of material during extensive cycling.
While cheap and effective for casual rides, gel cushions break down quickly and aren’t suitable for serious cycling.
Memory foam cushions do a bit better than gel, especially when it comes to longevity. It’s the same material as you’ll find in memory foam mattresses, and is often on the “harder” end of the spectrum.
Memory foam isn’t immediately more comfortable, it takes some time to wear it in. Once you have they’re rather comfortable, although pads still have a tendency to slide around.
Memory foam is usually a little more expensive, but it’s a more durable option than going with gel. Overall, if you insist on a bike seat cushion you should go with memory foam. While more uncomfortable initially, you’ll find that they last a lot longer than their gel counterparts.
Bike Seat Cover vs. New Bike Seat
Should you just get a new bike seat instead of a cover?
The choice largely depends on budget, but if you remove money from the equation you’re always better off finding a new bike seat. Cushions can’t compare to a saddle picked for what you need.
You can also find padded seats. A padded seat won’t slip around like a cover, which is a plus if you’re looking for short-term comfort, but they don’t solve the durability problem. Gel seats will still displace gel quickly, but memory foam can be a more durable option.
On the other hand, serious riders are going to want a seat that fits perfectly. If you ask five different cyclists which seat is the best, expect five different answers. You’ll have to experiment most likely, but you should at least calculate the size by determining your sit bone width for the best results.
A better seat is a better solution. Even if you just want a cheap gel pad for riding to the convenience store… you’re better off just replacing the seat entirely to avoid problems. Compare the following.
Pros of a New Seat (vs. Cover)
- More customizability
- More comfort possible
- More durable than covers
- Won’t move around
Cons of a New Seat (vs. Cover)
- More expensive
Bike Seat Cover vs. Padded Cycling Shorts
On the other side of the spectrum, you can also add padding to yourself by using a pair of padded cycling shorts. For long-distance riders, they’re the best option for padding, since a fitted pair of shorts keeps the padding where it’s needed.
For rides over 5 miles or so, you should be using a pair of cycling shorts anyways. Padded shorts aren’t that expensive, but they’ll generally cost a little bit more than a cushion. There’s some overlap in price points, depending on what exactly you’re looking for.
Padded shorts offer a lot of advantages, but they’re not great for short rides. They’re not a lot of fun to walk around in, and getting into them can be a bit of a chore. Casual riders and short commuters may want to use a cushion instead just for convenience.
The choice here is simple: if you’ll be riding long distances then it’s best to wear padded shorts.
Pros of Padded Shorts (vs. Cover)
- Much more durable
- Better for long distances
- Padding stays where needed
- Can be used with any saddle
Cons of Padded Shorts (vs. Seat Cover)
- Often more expensive
- Uncomfortable to wear off the bike
- Inconvenient for shorter rides
And if you want the ideal combination for long-term cycling comfort, it’s best to use BOTH a seat that fits your body and a pair of padded shorts for longer rides. Notice that in this scenario there is NO seat cover included.
By using a properly fitting seat (and cycling shorts for long trips), it can make you way more comfortable while you ride, and it can also reduce the lingering soreness that you may have experienced after a bike ride.